Ready, Willing, and Able: Willpower vs. Willingness


We’re seven weeks into 2013, and that means more than three-quarters of us resolution makers have faltered. We had the best of intentions. We were motivated. We had willpower! Why wasn’t that enough? (Click through to find out!)

We typically rely on our willpower to resist temptation and to pull us through difficult situations. Some of us will be successful in closing the door on those cookies in the cupboard, but many of us will reach a breaking point in the battle between our emotional drive to consume them and our mental efforts to resist them. And when our willpower gives out, we feel guilty, frustrated, and disappointed. We ask ourselves: “What’s wrong with me? I know I want this but I guess not badly enough.” Take a little comfort in this: Nothing is wrong with you; willpower is just not enough.

To understand why willpower is an ineffective tool for change, especially where our eating habits are concerned, we must understand its limitations. First, in order to use your willpower, you must use what is known as your working memory, which is basically what you are thinking about right now. Your working memory overwhelms easily—especially in lives composed of so many multi-tasking and rushed moments. We will often return to our bad habits automatically, before we can even catch ourselves. Second, because we are using our working memory, we will have to consciously try to not think about eating all the time in order for willpower to be successful. But trying to not think about something makes you think about it even more, which usually encourages, rather than discourages, the habit. We call this the White Bear Effect: “No matter what you do, don’t think about a white bear!” Now, of course, all you can think about is a white bear!

Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to stop your bad eating habits using willpower. Our brains are not designed to do this. To break bad habits, we need a more effective strategy.

This is where willingness comes in—more specifically, willingness to make changes in lifestyle. Willingness means making, by choice, the necessary changes in one’s behaviors to have weight-loss success. Willingness doesn’t rely on our liking those changes; it relies on our willingness to change. It is a choice, not a feeling. If we are willing, then we are choosing to do something in order to get something greater, something important, something valuable. Willpower, on the other hand, involves trying to resist the constant temptation to return to old, unhealthy eating habits. Choose willingness, instead, and you will encourage new, healthy habits.

It’s not merely a question of semantics—that of replacing desire with choice. Relying on willingness makes behavioral changes instinctual. Instead of having to use willpower to resist those cookies in the cupboard, be willing to buy healthier snacks at the grocery store. Instead of hoping that willpower will help you resist those mashed potatoes you made for your family for dinner, be willing to make that healthy Lean & Green meal for your family, instead.

So will you use willpower to resist comfort foods when you’re feeling stressed, or are you willing to have a warm cup of your favorite tea to relax? Will you use willpower to resist the bread basket when out at a restaurant with friends, or are you willing to suggest you go for an afternoon hike instead of going out to eat?

Choosing willingness over willpower means that you are focusing on the positive changes that you can make, rather than focusing on what you cannot have.

Will you use willpower to resist unhealthy temptations, or are you willing to change your lifestyle in a way that encourages healthy choices? It’s your choice.

Author: Nick Frye, LCPC, NCC, DCC

Medifast’s resident Behavioral Specialist, Nick, is a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor and Distance Credentialed Counselor specializing in addictions, disordered eating, motivation, and health behavior change. He develops behavior modification content for training programs, educational materials and support tools for all divisions of Medifast. Nick is a comic book and fantasy geek through-and-through, boasting that he has a far greater knowledge of the fictional Marvel Comics Universe than of his own family’s genealogy.

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